Michael J. O'Brien

Michael J. O'Brien is Provost and Professor of History at Texas A&M University–San Antonio and the coauthor of I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behavior and The Acceleration of Cultural Change: From Ancestors to Algorithms (both published by the MIT Press).

  • The Importance of Small Decisions

    The Importance of Small Decisions

    Michael J. O'Brien, R. Alexander Bentley, and William A. Brock

    How people make decisions in an era of too much information and fake news.

    Humans originally evolved in a world of few choices. Prehistoric, preindustrial, and predigital eras required fewer decisions than today's all-access, always-on world of too much information. Economists have largely discarded the idea that agents act rationally and the market follows suit. It seems that no matter how small or innocuous a decision might seem, there's almost no way to guess the effect it might have. The authors of The Importance of Small Decisions view decisions and their outcomes from a different perspective: as key elements in the evolution of culture. In this trailblazing book, they examine different kinds of decisions and map the outcomes, both short- and long-term. Drawing on this, they introduce a map of social behavior that captures the essential elements of human decision-making. The authors look at the New England Patriots' decision in 2000 to draft an underachieving college quarterback named Tom Brady; they consider Warren Buffett's investment strategy; and they chart the “dancing landscape” of a college applicant's decision-making environment. Finally, they show that decisions can be ranked according to transparency of choice and social influence. When fake news seems indistinguishable from real news and when the internet offers a cacophony of voices, they warn, we can't afford to crowdsource our decisions.

    • Hardcover $24.95 £20.00
  • Convergent Evolution in Stone-Tool Technology

    Convergent Evolution in Stone-Tool Technology

    Michael J. O'Brien, Briggs Buchanan, and Metin I. Eren

    Scholars from a variety of disciplines consider cases of convergence in lithic technology, when functional or developmental constraints result in similar forms in independent lineages.

    Hominins began using stone tools at least 2.6 million years ago, perhaps even 3.4 million years ago. Given the nearly ubiquitous use of stone tools by humans and their ancestors, the study of lithic technology offers an important line of inquiry into questions of evolution and behavior. This book examines convergence in stone tool-making, cases in which functional or developmental constraints result in similar forms in independent lineages. Identifying examples of convergence, and distinguishing convergence from divergence, refutes hypotheses that suggest physical or cultural connection between far-flung prehistoric toolmakers. Employing phylogenetic analysis and stone-tool replication, the contributors show that similarity of tools can be caused by such common constraints as the fracture properties of stone or adaptive challenges rather than such unlikely phenomena as migration of toolmakers over an Arctic ice shelf.

    Contributors R. Alexander Bentley, Briggs Buchanan, Marcelo Cardillo, Mathieu Charbonneau, Judith Charlin, Chris Clarkson, Loren G. Davis, Metin I. Eren, Peter Hiscock, Thomas A. Jennings, Steven L. Kuhn, Daniel E. Lieberman, George R. McGhee, Alex Mackay, Michael J. O'Brien, Charlotte D. Pevny, Ceri Shipton, Ashley M. Smallwood, Heather Smith, Jayne Wilkins, Samuel C. Willis, Nicolas Zayns

    • Hardcover $50.00 £40.00
  • The Acceleration of Cultural Change

    The Acceleration of Cultural Change

    From Ancestors to Algorithms

    R. Alexander Bentley and Michael J. O'Brien

    How culture evolves through algorithms rather than knowledge inherited from ancestors.

    From our hunter-gatherer days, we humans evolved to be excellent throwers, chewers, and long-distance runners. We are highly social, crave Paleolithic snacks, and display some gendered difference resulting from mate selection. But we now find ourselves binge-viewing, texting while driving, and playing Minecraft. Only the collective acceleration of cultural and technological evolution explains this development. The evolutionary psychology of individuals—the drive for “food and sex”—explains some of our current habits, but our evolutionary success, Alex Bentley and Mike O'Brien explain, lies in our ability to learn cultural know-how and to teach it to the next generation. Today, we are following social media bots as much as we are learning from our ancestors. We are radically changing the way culture evolves.

    Bentley and O'Brien describe how the transmission of culture has become vast and instantaneous across an Internet of people and devices, after millennia of local ancestral knowledge that evolved slowly. Long-evolved cultural knowledge is aggressively discounted by online algorithms, which prioritize popularity and recency. If children are learning more from Minecraft than from tradition, this is a profound shift in cultural evolution.

    Bentley and O'Brien examine the broad and shallow model of cultural evolution seen today in the science of networks, prediction markets, and the explosion of digital information. They suggest that in the future, artificial intelligence could be put to work to solve the problem of information overload, learning to integrate concepts over the vast idea space of digitally stored information.

    • Hardcover $24.95 £20.00
  • I'll Have What She's Having

    I'll Have What She's Having

    Mapping Social Behavior

    R. Alexander Bentley, Mark Earls, and Michael J. O'Brien

    How we learn from those around us: an essential guide to understanding how people behave.

    Humans are, first and foremost, social creatures. And this, according to the authors of I'll Have What She's Having, shapes—and explains—most of our choices. We're not just blindly driven by hard-wired instincts to hunt or gather or reproduce; our decisions are based on more than “nudges” exploiting individual cognitive quirks.

    I'll Have What She's Having shows us how we use the brains of others to think for us and as storage space for knowledge about the world. The story zooms out from the individual to small groups to the complexities of populations. It describes, among other things, how buzzwords propagate and how ideas spread; how the swine flu scare became an epidemic; and how focused social learning by a few gets amplified as copying by the masses. It describes how ideas, behavior, and culture spread through the simple means of doing what others do.

    It is notoriously difficult to change behavior. For every “Yes We Can” political slogan, there are thousands of “Just Say No” buttons. I'll Have What She's Having offers a practical map to help us navigate the complex world of social behavior, an essential guide for anyone who wants to understand how people behave and how to begin to change things.

    • Hardcover $25.95 £20.00
  • Innovation in Cultural Systems

    Innovation in Cultural Systems

    Contributions from Evolutionary Anthropology

    Michael J. O'Brien and Stephen J. Shennan

    Leading scholars offer a range of perspectives on the roles played by innovation in the evolution of human culture.

    In recent years an interest in applying the principles of evolution to the study of culture emerged in the social sciences. Archaeologists and anthropologists reconsidered the role of innovation in particular, and have moved toward characterizing innovation in cultural systems not only as a product but also as an evolutionary process. This distinction was familiar to biology but new to the social sciences; cultural evolutionists from the nineteenth to the twentieth century had tended to see innovation as a preprogrammed change that occurred when a cultural group “needed” to overcome environmental problems. In this volume, leading researchers from a variety of disciplines—including anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, philosophy, and psychology—offer their perspectives on cultural innovation. The book provides not only a range of views but also an integrated account, with the chapters offering an orderly progression of thought. The contributors consider innovation in biological terms, discussing epistemology, animal studies, systematics and phylogeny, phenotypic plasticity and evolvability, and evo-devo; they discuss modern insights into innovation, including simulation, the random-copying model, diffusion, and demographic analysis; and they offer case studies of innovation from archaeological and ethnographic records, examining developmental, behavioral, and social patterns.

    Contributors André Ariew, R. Alexander Bentley, Werner Callebaut, Joseph Henrich, Anne Kandler, Kevin N. Laland, Daniel O. Larson, Alex Mesoudi, Michael J. O'Brien, Craig T. Palmer, Adam Powell, Simon M. Reader, Valentine Roux, Chet Savage, Michael Brian Schiffer, Jeffrey H. Schwartz, Stephen J. Shennan, James Steele, Mark G. Thomas, Todd L. VanPool

    • Hardcover $45.00 £35.00